Thursday, September 25, 2003

Simon revisits cell in Baghdad

By David Bauder
The Associated Press

[IMAGE] Bob Simon, right, with 60 Minutes II producer Peter Klein, visit the Iraqi building where Simon was a captive.
(CBS photo)
A few weeks ago, CBS News correspondent Bob Simon voluntarily returned to a place he once never thought he'd leave alive.

It was the Iraqi intelligence headquarters, tucked away in a residential neighborhood of Baghdad. With the fall of Saddam Hussein, it's now an abandoned building.

For a month in winter 1991, that's where Simon and three CBS colleagues were held after they were captured by Iraqi forces during the Gulf War. They were beaten and interrogated, and only released after prodding from then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

While in Baghdad late last month, working on a story for 60 Minutes, Simon had a free afternoon and decided to see again where he'd been imprisoned.

Much of the 30 days he spent in a cell there he was in solitary confinement, not knowing when or if he'd ever get out. It put him in an intense mental state he'd never experienced before. "I had tried drugs, but it's different," he said.

His goal was to find his old cell, shut the door, stay there for a day and reflect.

"I am not a religious person - I don't believe in God - but a lot of the time you spend in solitary confinement becomes, in one way or another, spiritual," he said. "And I wanted to recapture some of that."

Simon thought his desire somewhat freakish. In talking to others who had been in similar situations, he found it was common.

For some people, it helps bring clarity to their experience, said Terry Anderson, the former chief Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press, who was held hostage in Lebanon for seven years before being released in December 1991.

It wasn't a feeling Anderson shared.

"I have no desire to go back and look at some hole in the ground where I was locked up," he said. "I can understand - it was different for Bob and some of the others. I'm not sure I could locate one of them and I never had any desire to try."

Ultimately, Simon's experience in Baghdad proved anticlimactic. He couldn't be sure he located his exact cell and, since he was with some CBS colleagues at the time, didn't have the solitude or time that he wanted.

During his interrogations, Simon lied and told the Iraqis that he lived in New York and wasn't Jewish. A month into his captivity, he was confronted by a man who said the Iraqis knew who he was, that he was Jewish and lived in Israel, and that he was working for the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. (He wasn't.) He was told his trial would begin in two days.

"I knew it would be a short trial, and I knew what the result would be," he said. "I knew they were going to execute me."

That night, the Americans bombed the intelligence headquarters. Simon and his CBS colleagues were transferred to the Abu Ghraib prison. Chaos bought them time, and in 10 days they were released.

The emotional aftermath to his captivity proved tougher than Simon anticipated.

Although Anderson didn't return to journalism and covering dangerous places - he's now semiretired and running a horse farm - Simon, 62, has stuck with it. He went to Bosnia, Haiti and Somalia, although he didn't cover this year's war. And he lives in Israel, one of the most volatile places on Earth.

"Whenever there's a big story, I've wanted to be there," he said. "It's the disease we all suffer from, that keeps us going back and wanting to do silly things."

Simon, technically a 60 Minutes II correspondent, has gradually been increasing his output on 60 Minutes, as well. One small sign of his increased stature: last year, he became part of the show's opening credits for the first time ("I'm Bob Simon"), although only on the days one of his stories appeared.

Simon shrugs when asked if he's glad he went back to his prison.

"Yeah," he said. "No big deal, though. I'd still like to go back and do it the way I wanted to."

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